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Vox, December 2018

Beto O’Rourke is a young, charismatic politician who is getting a lot of 2020 buzz from progressives. He’s even ranking among former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders in some recent primary polling.

But what does O’Rourke actually believe? After all, he won a House seat in El Paso largely by running to the right of the entrenched incumbent and after a couple of terms in office threw himself into the difficult task of trying to win a statewide election in Texas.

As you might expect from that personal history, O’Rourke has a voting record that is somewhat more conservative than the average House Democrat’s. Indeed, if you blocked all thoughts of the 2020 presidential primary and asked yourself what kind of House Democrat would have a chance of winning a statewide election in Texas, you’d say it would take a guy with a lot of charisma and probably a record that’s somewhat more conservative than your average House Democrat’s.

Unfortunately, because this point has most assertively been made by people who are known as fans of Sanders, it has led to pushback that in turn tends to flatten the entire analysis into a basic “Bernie versus the establishment” kind of thing.

The truth, however, is it’s not just that O’Rourke’s voting record is more conservative than Sanders’s — you could say that about lots of people. It really is more conservative than that of most Democrats in Congress, including other main 2020 contenders. This can be shown in a systematic way.

Beto O’Rourke’s record is somewhat conservative for a Democrat

The gold standard for measuring these things is a system called DW-NOMINATE, which essentially chunks together every vote recorded in Congress to analyze how the members’ records relate to each other. There’s a lot more to life than congressional voting records, so I wouldn’t take this as the final word on politicians’ true ideological souls.

But it does show us how they vote.

So how did O’Rourke vote? Well, in his first term in Congress, he voted somewhat more conservatively than the typical House Democrat. It was the same in his second term in Congress and the same again in his third term.

  • In the 113th Congress, he was more conservative than 76 percent of Democrats.
  • In the 114th Congress, he was more conservative than 79 percent of Democrats.
  • In the 115th Congress, he was more conservative than 77 percent of Democrats.

Now, to be clear, if you look at a visualization of O’Rourke in the most recent Congress, it’s not like he’s a crypto-Republican or anything. Even the most conservative Democrats are well to the left of the most liberal Republicans, and O’Rourke is quite a bit more liberal than the most conservative Democrats. ...
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